Who Knew the Bible Could Be This Much Fun?

Credit the believers over at GSN. Executives believed that a primetime game show about the Bible could be a ratings winner and took the risk, hiring big-name comedian (and devout Christian) Jeff Foxworthy to host American Bible Challenge. And they’re on to something righteous.

Bible Challenge earned a record 1.7 million viewers for its August premiere and, including encore performances, had more than 5 million viewers in its first week.

“It’s one of these ideas that seems so obvious, but fear has gotten in the way of attempting it on an entertainment-based channel,” GSN executive vice president of programming and development Amy Introcaso- Davis said. “The American Bible Challenge is tracking to be the highestrated show in GSN’s history. We also know from research and our frequent online communication from our audience that the subject matter is bringing in people who haven’t come to us before.”

Multichannel News has previously documented the trends of religious networks reaching across the aisle (or the pew, as it were) and pulling in viewers with more secular, entertainment-witha- purpose programming.

But now the converse is happening: Non-religious networks are reaching out to a large and, many believe, underserved community of 75 million Americans who describe themselves as active Christians, according to a recent Simmons Research study.

That trend is continuing at BET, which is expanding its plate of programs with religious themes. The network has optioned four novels by Christian author Reshonda Tate Billingsley, including Let The Church Say Amen and I Know I’ve Been Changed. BET also is developing a talk show hosted by Bishop T.D. Jakes and a reality series featuring gospel star Karen Clark Sheard.

BET already has the top gospelthemed series on cable its competitionbased show Sunday Best. The Sept. 2 season-five finale garnered a series-best 2.6 million viewers.

“At BET, we don’t view the expansion of our spiritually-themed programming as a move, but rather a progression,” Charlie Jordan Brookins, senior vice president of original content at BET, said. “Faith-based programming has been a part of our programming model since the network’s inception and we’re excited to not only continue to build upon the many successful franchises that have contributed to defining our brand, but also to continue to explore additional formats.”

At Smithsonian Channel, a hot religious topic is the subject for a new documentary. Last month, a Harvard Divinity School professor released research about a fourth-century fragment of papyrus that may indicate Jesus referring to his wife. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was set to premiere Sept. 30, but the release date has been pushed back after scholars began questioning the veracity of the fragment. The network said the upcoming show will give a more complete story, taking the academic response into account.

History is building a special around the Good Book itself, teaming with prolific producer Mark Burnett on a fivehour, five-part series, The Bible. The series will chronicle the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and will air sometime in 2013, the network said.

How do the full-time faith-based networks feel about their secular counterparts moving into their sphere? Just fine, thanks.

“I love the idea that [GSN] or some of the other networks are basically trying to come up with programming for the faith-based genre, because we know there’s a great faith-based audience,” TBN vice president of affiliate relations Bob Higley said. “In my affiliate sales meetings now with the MSOs, I talk to them about these popular networks. It legitimizes our demographic and our audience that we’ve been telling MSOs about for decades.”

TBN’s had a busy summer, purchasing a building in Jerusalem for a TV studio in the Holy City. Network co-founder Paul Crouch recently toured Israel with 1,800 supporters, and TBN’s Shalom TV is currently up and running on Israel’s YES satellite service. Higley hopes to have the Jerusalem studio up and running by the network’s 40th anniversary next spring.

“The vast majority of Americans believe in God, go to church,” Inspiration Networks senior vice president John Roos said. “[There’s a] fundamental faith they have in common. The people outside of this culture don’t seem to understand how huge the culture is.”

Some non-religious networks, including GMC TV and the former Family Channel [now ABC Family], have long been in the spiritual programming world, but it’s a trend that comes in cycles, Roos said.

INSP continues to build its nonreligious fare, too, notably a block of Westerns dubbed “Saddle Up Saturday.” Last month, it added NBC’s 1967-71 drama The High Chaparral, which provided the network with its highest-rated Saturday in history, according to Roos.

So if some secular programs are getting a little more religious and some religious programmers are getting a little more secular, what is it that draws in religious viewers?

Many executives say it’s the same thing that attracts non-religious viewers to programs: compelling content with high entertainment value.

For religious viewers there also tends to be a family-friendly, values-promoting component. Part of American Bible Challenge’s appeal is certainly its religious content. But a high-profile host, singing choirs, bright lights and big-money rewards (raised for charity) have something to do with it, too.

Higley’s only problem with the show? That he hasn’t been on it yet. “My wife and I watched and tried to guess all the answers. We’re probably experts,” he said. “We probably need to be chosen. I think both of us, between us, got all the answers.”